For the last 15 years I’ve made TV programs, ones you’d watch: Getaway, Farmer Wants a Wife, Celebrity Apprentice. I love it, but it can be highly stressful. A while back, I was more stressed than I can ever recall. I was wrapping up one show, starting another, doing radio interviews, trying to juggle two lives. I had to drive to a location shoot. As a producer, I drive around a lot. And I talk on my mobile a lot, too.
The nice, cute policeman was happy to tell me the two don’t mix, as he wrote out my ticket. As he did, my real estate agent rang to tell me my tenants hadn’t paid rent for months. The policemen interrupted and said that with the loss of points from the ticket, I’d lose my licence. For a year. He wasn’t that nice anymore. Or cute. My blood began to boil. I needed my car. I needed my tenants to pay rent. I needed to get to this location. I needed a break.
Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting on a plane heading to Bali to the Surf Goddess Retreat, a female-only yoga cum surf school in Bali’s up-market Seminyak district. I regularly do hot yoga and am learning to surf too, so the mix seemed perfect.
Villa Serena is the unofficial name of the retreat, a collection of stunning buildings that have evolved in just nine years to provide a space for solo female travellers looking for a shared experience.
It was the brainchild of Australian Chelsea Ross, who created this seven-day surf and yoga program so women could come and learn to surf in a supportive environment. Chelsea moved from Australia to Bali 15 years ago at the age of 27 and was taught to surf by a female semi-pro on the island. She and a select group of girlfriends were among a small fraternity of female surfers back then when it was not socially acceptable for women to ride waves.
My home for the week was just a few doors up the laneway in the private villa which I was sharing with a fellow goddess, Jackie, a wonderful Aussie who worked in a senior management role in an international aid NGO. The open-air villa included two separate bedrooms, each with ensuites, a decadent Balinese day bed, sun loungers, 10-metre private pool, a kitchen and luxurious soft furnishings.
That night we dined in the resort’s main villa, which overlooks the main resort’s pool. Here I got to meet the women with whom I’d be spending the next seven days. They ranged from high-powered corporate types looking for a quick escape to inspiring mothers, sisters and wives.
Each of my fellow Goddesses had an amazing story to tell – of illness, family crisis, stressful business ventures. All of them put my pathetic dramas at home to shame. I took a walk down the beach by myself and watched the sun drop below the horizon. I reminded myself to always keep perspective, no matter what. I felt better that evening than I had in a long time. What is this place doing to me, and it’s only day one?
The mornings start with a 7am yoga session. The classes are taught by Susan, a beautiful, svelte blonde 42-year-old who had an accent that suggested she was well-travelled. She was the type of woman you wanted to know. I liked her instantly.
Today, like every day, she asked the class what sort of yoga they wanted. Susan prefers to teach and practise a traditional style and match the poses to her students. She draws on constant study to help evolve her teachings, “as our bodies are always adapting and changing, you can’t just stick to one practice”.
While she’s a traditionalist, many that pass through the retreat doors have asked that all-important question: to name her style, which Susan has reluctantly named “rising heart”. Susan believes that the heart is at the centre of the universe and, once the heart rises, it opens up and exudes compassion. She smiles softly, “I’m always saying ‘Lift up your heart’ in my classes, so it seemed to fit.”
My fellow goddesses-in-training all seemed to have a common thread of high achievers hovering just on the other side of 40. This, according to Susan, is not by chance. “Guests seem to share a communality of kindred spirits. There is no such thing as coincidences in life; we often find synergy with the groups: some women come to get over break-ups, taking a break from the kids, wanting to change career. ”
Susan believes by the end of the eight days there seems to be a shift in most guests: “They choose their time to come here like a punctuation, a full stop to access something and then move forward. This is a great environment to process life.”
After yoga we head down to the main villa for a gourmet breakfast of your choosing, fresh fruit and eggs are on offer. Everything is made fresh on the premises and they pride themselves in using fresh, organic ingredients. After a hearty breakfast, it was time to hit the waves for my first surf lesson.
The idea of combining surf lessons with yoga came through an organic process.
One of Chelsea’s friends who had learned to surf with her was also studying to be a yoga teacher. At that stage, there was no yoga being taught down by the coast, it was up in Ubud, known as an arts and cultural centre. She believes she coined the phrase “Surfing yoga retreat…never camp”.
The morning practice leads us naturally to the surfboards, which Susan believes is a perfect fit. “Yoga builds body strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. It also helps develop a strong core and keeps your neck and shoulders open – all great for surfing,” she says. She believes that at a fundamental level, surfing requires you to operate in the moment, as does yoga. “Yoga requests you to be present. Surfing offers the same discipline. Both are solitary things to do – in your yoga practice, it’s all about being present on the mat, and on the surfboard, it is the same space – just you and the board, or you and the mat.” Susan believes it’s through “that space of being in the moment that leads to enormous tools of self discovery”.
The surfing was a lot different in Bali, but under the guidance of qualified and very patient instructors, I advanced. I even opted to stay in longer and the feeling of getting up on a wave was so exhilarating.
It was already 2pm, the time had flown: we’d done yoga, gone for a surf, had a bite for lunch. Now, it was time to get ready for a three-hour massage at the Prana Spa.
After being gently guided to my treatment room, I soon found myself face-up, looking at a billowing fabric ceiling. I’m home, I thought.
My treatment of choice was a first for me – a hot-stone massage. Fifty-degree basalt stones were rubbed gently into my skin by two therapists with lashings of oil – the perfect antidote to a physical day of yoga and surfing. I was then treated to a facial and woke only a few times to an embarrassing snort from what was clearly me asleep and well snoring. The practitioner didn’t miss a beat. She was clearly used to clients falling asleep during treatments. Talk about relaxed! As I made my exit, slightly dazed by my sudden bliss, I noticed my friend and Aussie export to Bollywood, Tania Zaetta, pass me at reception. Our Yoga Goddess’ Susan’s wise words of there being no such thing as co-incidences ran through my mind. This place was freaky, in a good way.
Back at the villa, I saw a strange person in the mirror. She was a younger, happier and healthier me. I couldn’t believe my reflection. Relax, I told myself. I reminded myself how important it is to relax and breathe.
Each day for the week to come commenced with our two-hour morning yoga session at 7am, followed by breakfast, then a surf. If it sounds structured, it wasn’t. It was a healthy, invigorating routine we could break, but didn’t. The yoga combined with the surfing was addictive, meditative… we came to need it. I miss it now, writing this.
Chelsea says easily about the retreat’s sole purpose, “It’s a time to sit back, re-evaluate and take time out for themselves, which most women don’t often give themselves permission to do.”
She has seen some profound changes, and women taking control of their lives, which for her is the best reward. Chelsea smiles proudly, “This retreat is often the catalyst for change.”
Back in Australia, the petty problems in my life sorted themselves out, as they always do. I felt different, changed, better, more connected with people. It wasn’t just the post-holiday glow, but a profound change and I realised the most important lesson I took from the retreat wasn’t just the yoga and surfing. It’s the sisterhood that surrounded it that made it a worthwhile life adventure.
www.surfgoddessretreats.com. Prices start from $2, 545 USD for seven days.